Roddy Doyle’s short story, “Blood”, brings the fantasy of vampires into the real world. Straddling horror and dark humour, the protagonist is a distinctly regular man whose midlife crisis – or, rather, awakening – takes the shape of developing a taste for blood. He devours raw meat to squeeze out every last drop, to ingest one more drop. The story is evocative without being macabre. The undertones of sanity, sexuality and freewill remain below the surface as a contemporary man living in the real world begins to transform into a vampire. Doyle’s delightful offering came to mind during the first few pages of The Vegetarian
Perhaps one person’s stubborn refusal to conform served as a reminder, or perhaps it was simpler – the alteration of one’s diet, vivid and corporeal. Han Kang’s Man Booker International 2016 winning novel, however, takes the real world on a fantastical journey. The signposts and destination are very real horrors that encroach upon the lives of the protagonist’s family, relentlessly preying on every last one of them. The Vegetarian
remains tethered to naturalism, and could easily be described as the story of Yeong-hye, a young South Korean woman. Her decision to stop eating meat prompts liberation and desolation in tandem. The cultic fervour and faux piety of moralising twenty-first century vegetarians makes it tempting to read the book as a cautionary tale about the causal nexus between rejecting meat and ruin, but that would be selective, if not downright erroneous. Kang employs simplicity to deploy complexities.
It would be reductive to categorise The Vegetarian as a tragedy, for the defiance that instigates the story and runs through it is to be celebrated, not lamented.
The story is told in three parts. The point of view shifts from Yeong-hye’s husband to her brother-in-law, and from him to his wife, Yeong-hye’s sister: A brazen display of voyeurism executed deftly, without being mawkish. Yeong-hye takes turns being the object and simply an object, rendered with a detachment that simultaneously seduces readers and makes them uncomfortable. The switch from Mr Cheong’s first-person narrative in the first part of the book to Yeong-hye’s unnamed brother-in-law’s point-of-view (third-person) in the second part of the book is a shift from the selfish gaze to a deferential one. In turn, that gives way to a melancholic outlook in the final part; In-hye is the subject, sifting through the wreckage in the aftermath, her younger sister, as ever, the object, ossifying. Some of the events transpire before each of the three parts. As they are relayed, the remainder of the action unfolds as their consequences.
The technical proficiency of the novel extends beyond that. The lack of “superfluity” is elucidated in the second part. Through repetition, it solidifies Yeong-hye’s presence in the mind of the reader. It is a description that applies to the writing as well, the physical presence of the protagonist a metaphor, metaphysically, for the writer’s art. To shed excesses is to shed imperfections; sparsity is beauty. The language, however, is not stripped of its inherent poetry. Yeong-hye’s voice is described as having, “no weight to it, like feathers. It was neither gloomy nor absent-minded, as might be expected of someone who was ill. But it wasn’t bright or light-hearted either. It was the quiet tone of a person who didn’t belong anywhere, someone who had passed into a border area between states of being.” Man’s carnal existence is painted thus: “The sunlight that came splintering through the wide window, dissolving into grains of sand, and the beauty of that body which, though this was not visible to the eye, was also ceaselessly splintering…the overwhelming inexpressibility of the scene beat against him like a wave breaking on the rocks, alleviating even those terrifyingly unknowable compulsions that had caused him such pain over the past year.”
Smith’s presence in Dhaka was a reminder of a failure of Bangladeshi literature. Save for some recent initiatives into translation of Bangladeshi (Bangla) literature, conversing with the world by translating its literature has never been deemed important to Bangladesh. Translation remains a thankless undertaking, Bangladeshi literature remains insular, isolated
The patriarchy, family unit and codified relationships, middle class urban life, incontestable law of obedience, and quiet rebellion of the novel – exotic to the Western palate – will be familiar to Bangladesh. Deborah Smith, whose translation into today’s lingua franca makes a mass global readership possible, attended the Dhaka Literary Festival in 2016. Her resolve to define contemporary literature as international, representative of voices from all over the word, extends to publishing works translated into English through Tilted Axis Press. Smith’s presence in Dhaka was a reminder of a failure of Bangladeshi literature. Save for some recent initiatives into translation of Bangladeshi (Bangla) literature, conversing with the world by translating its literature has never been deemed important to Bangladesh. Translation remains a thankless undertaking, Bangladeshi literature remains insular, isolated. Bangladeshi writers are poorer for it. The Vegetarian
could not be conceived in Bangladesh. The noose of censorship has tightened enough for its deliberations on sanity, sexuality, creation and existence to be considered taboo. The self-inflicted wounds of isolation expedite the meek surrender to the socio-political restrictions on the freedoms of speech and expression in Bangladesh.
Taboos aplenty are laid bare in a book that is explicit and uninhibited. The question, “Is the human form, stripped of all materialism, purity or sin?” lingers as the possibility of innocence in human beings is scrutinised. It would be reductive to categorise The Vegetarian
as a tragedy, for the defiance that instigates the story and runs through it is to be celebrated, not lamented. It offers rare hope. A woman’s contemplation results in a unique interpretation of the world, which leads her to make a definitive decision about life. The world denigrates her, refuses to understand her, but she sees clearly and is steadfast in her belief. The novel reflects on humanity, not vegetarianism. Mirroring the protagonist, it is direct, honest, and visceral. It is a short book that will live long in the readers’ minds. What is savoured when being read will be debated and discussed to stretch the ephemeral into perpetuity, an impressionistic piece never fully comprehended, but not even slightly incomprehensible.
Ikhtisad Ahmed is a poet and fiction writer. He also writes essays and book reviews. Yours, Etecetera, his debut short story collection, was published by Bengal Lights Books.